Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Drowning Pool (1975)

July 10, 1975, release date
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Walter Hill
Based on The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald
Music by Michael Small
Edited by John C. Howard
Cinematography by Gordon Willis

Paul Newman as Lew Harper
Joanne Woodward as Iris Devereaux
Anthony (“Tony”) Franciosa as Chief Broussard
Murray Hamilton as J. J. Kilbourne
Gail Strickland as Mavis (“May-May”) Kilbourne
Melanie Griffith as Schuyler Devereaux
Linda Haynes as Gretchen, the working girl
Andre Trottier as the hydrotherapist
Richard Jaeckel as Lieutenant Franks
Paul Koslo as Candy, one of Kilbourne’s henchmen
Joe Canutt as Glo, one of Kilbourne’s henchmen
Andrew (“Andy”) Robinson as Pat Reavis
Coral Browne as Olivia Devereaux, the matriarch
Helena Kallianiotes as Elaine Reavis

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Produced by First Artists

The Drowning Pool is a lot of fun to watch for all the reasons that I thought Harper, also starring Paul Newman, was fun. Both are based on Ross Macdonald books that feature Lew Harper, private investigator. It seems obvious—at least to me—that Paul Newman enjoys his work and has a lot of fun doing it. In both of his roles as Lew Harper, he reminds me of Lloyd Nolan in the Michael Shayne roles.

This is the second time that Paul Newman portrayed the character Lew Harper. He portrayed him the first time in the 1966 film Harper. Click here for my blog post about Harper.

The credits appear over the opening sequence of The Drowning Pool, as they did in Harper. In this sequence, Harper gets into his rental car at the New Orleans International Airport. Right away, he has a bit of trouble with the car: He can’t get the seat belt to work and thus get the buzzing—and annoying—alarm to stop. The credits roll as he resolves the problem. He finally gets the buzzing alarm to stop when he disconnects the wires behind the driver’s seat.

Iris Devereaux has hired Lew Harper for some investigative work in New Orleans. They meet on the sly in an antiques store in downtown New Orleans. Her telegram read “Mrs. James Devereaux” according to Harper, and he assumed that she was a stranger, but when he sees her, he realizes that he does know her. They had a week-long affair when she visited Los Angeles, which is where Harper lives and works. Here is their first conversation:
Lew: “Boy, you look terrific.”
Iris: “So do you. Except you got a little gray over your ears there.”
Lew: “It’s the only difference. Everything else works about the same.”
Iris: “That was six years ago. That really was a voluptuous week, wasn’t it?”
Lew: “Aside from the good times, you didn’t give away much, did you? Why did you drop us like that? I turned around to wind my watch and turned back and you slipped out of L.A.”
Iris: [with some regret] “It was time to go home.”
Iris has flown Harper to New Orleans for business, “strictly business,” as she tells him. This first conversation makes no mention of business or any of Iris’s reasons for bringing Harper to New Orleans. She has gotten Harper a room at the Town House Motor Hotel, and he is to call before meeting her at her home.

While Harper gets himself settled into his motel room, Iris’s daughter Schuyler tries to seduce him. She lets herself into the room when she finds his door unlocked. At this point, Harper and viewers are not aware of Schuyler’s relationship to Iris. This scene gives viewers a chance to see the complicated nature of Harper’s business ethics, which were part of his character in Harper. Harper wants nothing to do with Schuyler because he knows she is probably too young for legal consent. When she balks at leaving the room because she is not used to taking no for an answer, however, he is not above slapping her across the face.

The chief of police, Chief Broussard, has Harper picked up by Lieutenant Franks and a couple of officers on trumped-up charges. Someone on the police force must have known that Schuyler had visited Harper at the motel. This incident raises a lot of questions for both Harper and the viewer. Is Schuyler being followed? If it’s Harper who is being followed, how would anyone besides Iris have known of his arrival?

When Harper goes to Iris’s home, she shows him a letter that she received threatening blackmail about her infidelities. She tells Harper that it’s not her husband that she’s afraid of; it’s his mother, Olivia Devereaux. She thinks that the letter came from Pat Reavis, the family chauffeur, whom Iris fired.

Again, as in Harper, The Drowning Pool has a lot of seemingly unrelated threads that are part of the mystery surrounding Iris Devereaux and her family. Jay Hue Kilbourne is an oil man in Louisiana. He also runs illegal dogfighting, a business for which he has a lot of unsavory employees. He wants the Devereaux land because of the oil underneath it, and he wants Harper to convince the Devereaux, especially Olivia Devereaux, to sell. Kilbourne has a lot influence in the town, and he is only too happy to turn it into pressure if it suits his purposes.

The Drowning Pool (1975) is a sequel of sorts for Harper (1966) because it features the same detective in the lead role, and both stories are based on novels by Ross Macdonald. Harper is based on The Moving Target, which was published in 1949, and The Drowning Pool is based on the novel of the same name, published in 1950. I haven’t read the novels, not yet at least, but there are points of continuity that I thought showed the care that everyone felt toward both film projects:
Each film begins with Lew Harper. The credits appear over an opening sequence that allows viewers to learn a bit about Harper and even to identify with him. In Harper, he starts his day in his office-slash-apartment; in The Drowning Pool, he has to figure out how to turn off the buzzing alarm when the seat belt in his car won’t work.
Harper chews gum in both films; he doesn’t smoke.
The seemingly unrelated threads of the plot in both films are all interrelated, which is made apparent when the mysteries are solved.
Each film ends with a freeze frame of Lew Harper.
In both films, Lew Harper has to see the assignment to the very end, even if it means that he won’t be paid and even if he creates more hardship for himself and others.

I guess I could say, as I did about Harper, that The Drowning Pool doesn’t really break any new ground. But it is so much fun to watch Paul Newman, perhaps even a bit more so in The Drowning Pool because his costar is his wife Joanne Woodward. And after uncovering one mystery after another in New Orleans, Harper does finally bring all the facts and evidence together to solve them all. A very satisfying ending, once again.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Dead End (1937)

August 27, 1937, release date
Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Lillian Hellman
Based on the play Dead End by Sidney Kingsley, Norman Bel Geddes
Music by Alfred Newman
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Cinematography by Gregg Toland

Sylvia Sidney as Drina Gordon
Joel McCrea as Dave Connell
Humphrey Bogart as Joe “Baby Face” Martin
Wendy Barrie as Kay Burton
Claire Trevor as Francey
Allen Jenkins as Hunk
Marjorie Main as Mrs. Martin
Charles Peck as Philip Griswald
Minor Watson as Mr. Griswald
James Burke as Officer Mulligan
Ward Bond as the doorman
Elisabeth Risdon as Mrs. Connell
Esther Dale as Mrs. Fenner
George Humbert as Pascagli
Marcelle Corday as the governess
Charles Halton as Whitey
Billy Halop as Tommy Gordon
Huntz Hall as Dippy
Bobby Jordan as Angel
Leo B. Gorcey as Spit
Gabriel Dell as T. B.
Bernard Punsly as Milton, aka “Milty”

Distributed by United Artists
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Productions

I remember watching reruns of the comedy show The Bowery Boys on television, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that the show is actually a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off. The film Dead End marked the first appearance of the actors, the gang, on film, when they were called the Dead End Kids. Through loans of the actors in this group to other studios and remake after remake, the original members went through several transformations: from the Dead End Kids to the Little Tough Guys, to the East Side Kids, to the Bowery Boys.

By the time the Dead End Kids had become the Bowery Boys, they had moved from serious dramatic roles to slapstick comedy. The film Dead End contains some social commentary, which is very different from The Bowery Boys reruns that I watched on television, and social commentary is often a feature of film noir. I am calling Dead End an avant noir (the term I use to refer to proto-noir, a precursor to noir), but much of what I have read online about the film calls it a gangster film. Avant noir, gangster film, social commentary: All of it works for me. I’ve never been very strict about categories for film. And how can I not write, even indirectly, about a favorite show?

A website called the Age of Comedy offers a short synopsis, in two parts, of the gang: “From Kids to Boys: The Imprefect of the Bowery Boys.” I love the malapropism in the title of both, a nod to Slip Mahoney of the Bowery Boys, I imagine. Click on each list item below to get started:
The same website also provides more malapropisms and the following:

Wikipedia offers even more detail about the gang (kids, guys, boys). Click on each item in the list below to learn more:

The different lifestyles of the rich and the poor depicted in Dead End are the most obvious examples of social commentary, but the film also touches on reform school and the lack of reform that it offers, despite its name; tensions between neighborhood residents and law enforcement; and workers striking for better wages. Drina Gordon, one of the main characters, wants to leave the tenement neighborhood behind and take her brother Tommy with her. But she needs money, and she joins her fellow coworkers to strike for better pay; her exact job is never mentioned or described, maybe because the strike started before the time line in the film. The film never shows Drina on the picket line, but she and fellow coworkers are beaten by police because they are picketing. She shows the bruise on her forehead to Officer Mulligan when he complains that she won’t help him find the boy who stabbed Mr. Griswald outside his luxury apartment. Drina has personal reasons for hiding that information, and her experiences with law enforcement have made her wary. There is plenty of distrust in general between the neighborhood residents and police officers, and between the rich and the poor residents, too.

(This blog post about Dead End contains spoilers.)

The film has a rather odd start: Most of the opening credits appear on a rather cartoonish-looking street sign, starting with the film’s title, in close-up. After the opening credits, the film cuts to a shot of the New York City skyline in the background and the following written text:
Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the poor.
Then the camera pans down to crowded alleys, dark buildings, laundry on clotheslines, people sleeping on fire escapes and benches. This is where the Dead End Kids live with their families and neighbors. The film then tells several intertwining stories.

One of the residents, Dave Collins, is in love with Kay Burton, who is a social climber. She isn’t unsympathetic, however: She has seen what poverty does to people, and she has seen what it did to her own family. But Dave realizes that she will never stay with him because all she wants is a year of happiness and she doesn’t care what happens after that. Dave wants more than that, and he returns to Drina Gordon, who has loved him from the start.

Joe “Baby Face” Martin returns to the neighborhood with his henchman, Hunk. Martin is on the run because he is wanted for eight murders. He went out west to Colorado and had plastic surgery to make himself unrecognizable and thus give himself a chance to return home. Dave Collins is the only one who recognizes him after the plastic surgery. Martin is back to see his mother and the love of his life, Francey. His mother doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, and Francey is now a prostitute. When Martin hears what Francey is doing for a living, he spurns her. He expects forgiveness from his mother and chasteness from Francey, but he has nothing admirable to offer them in return.

Dave Collins doesn’t like what Baby Face Martin represents, and he warns Martin that he is no longer wanted in his old neighborhood. Martin doesn’t care what Dave thinks and plans a kidnapping with someone named Whitey. That plan ends in a shootout between Dave and Martin, and Dave shoots and critically wounds Martin. Martin eventually shoots a pursuing police officer, and other police officers shoot Martin dead.

Tommy Gordon, one of the Dead End Kids, helps his gang beat up Philip Griswald, a rich kid living in the new apartment building towering over their street. They steal Philip’s clothes and his watch. The boy’s father is brother to Judge Griswald, and he wants the boys, especially the gang leader (Tommy Gordon) to be held responsible. Spit (Leo Dorcey) rats on Tommy when he is caught by one of the local police officers. Tommy is caught, but while the boy’s father struggles with Tommy, Tommy takes out a knife and stabs the man. Tommy gets away and goes into hiding, and his sister Drina plans to run away with him. Dave Connell steps in a couple of times to help Tommy. He convinces Tommy to give up his knife when he threatens Spit with “the mark of the squealer” (a knife cut deep enough to leave a scar across the cheek). Then he convinces Tommy to turn himself in and throw himself on the mercy of the court. Drina is anxious about Tommy going to reform school, but Dave promises to use the reward money that he will get for finding Baby Face Martin to hire a good lawyer for Tommy.

Dave Collins has the most important speech in the film, especially if you accept Dead End as social commentary. But Drina Gordon sees through his hypocrisy. Dave does care, but he has more than one reason for his concern:
Dave Collins: “What chance have they [the Dead End Kids] got against all this? They’ve gotta fight for a place to play, fight for a little something extra to eat, fight for everything. They get used to fighting. Enemies of society, it says in the papers. Why not? What have they got to be so friendly about?”
Drina Gordon: “It didn’t do those things to you.”
Dave: “Didn’t it? Well, it did enough to me, the other way. It made them accept it and get tough about it. It made me into a fool. I spent my life dreaming about tearing these places down. Well, I found out today. I saw myself and these rotten holes we live in through somebody else’s eyes. I wanted to tear them down with my fingers.”
Drina: “Yeah, you always talked about that—how you were going to tear all this down and all the other places like them. How you were going to build a decent world where people could live decent and be decent. But now you want them down just so she [Kay Burton] won’t see them ’cause they’re not pretty for her to see. All it means to you now is whether or not you get her. Well, go on and get her. And forget all this. And if you can forget, it’s all you were ever good for in the first place!”

I looked forward to seeing Dead End because it had an amazing list of actors. In addition, Lillian Helman, accomplished writer and Dashiell Hammiett’s partner, wrote the screenplay, which is based on a play by Sidney Kingsley and Norman Bel Geddes.

For more about Lillian Hellman, click on each item in the list below:

National Public Radio: Lillian Hellman: A “Difficult,” Vilified Woman

I have never seen the play or read the script, but I’m curious about it because it seems that the film is true to the original work. All of the action of a play would be limited by the stage; in Dead End, all of the action takes place at the end of one block, which also serves as the headquarters for the East 53rd Place gang. The gang members and their neighbors live in squalid tenements that abut the East River’s edge, but their neighborhood (and the gang’s territory) is being invaded, not by rival gangs but by the wealthy, who want views of the river and are willing to build luxurious apartment buildings next to tenements to claim the views as their own.

I wasn’t expecting comedy before I watched Dead End, but I was surprised at the complexity of the story and the themes that it presented. The Bowery Boys certainly traveled a long way from their first screen appearance in Dead End.